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The Five Pillars of K-Pop Marketing Strategies

Five marketing strategies that have played an integral role in making K-pop a global success story

Divyansha Dongre Feb 10, 2022

From left (L) to right (R): NCT 127 BTS and Stray Kids. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment, BigHit Music and JYP Entertainment respectively

Known for its high-production value and multi-genre composition, the Korean music industry has rapidly ascended to global recognition. Etched in our mind is the industry’s ability to create immersive experiences that cleverly incorporate the best of music, technology and design, to entertain millions.

While it’s interesting how the industry never falls short of content, the process of curation to the dissemination of said content is far more fascinating. With the dynamism of social media in play, the multi-billion dollar industry has grasped the potency of content creation and social media marketing enabling K-pop artists to reach larger masses with almost no advertising spends in place. It’s a no-brainer why music marketing professionals are revisiting the Korean music marketing model (especially K-pop) as a case study to drive their numbers. 

The crux of any marketing plan rests on three pillars—pre-launch, launch, and sustenance phases. While the first two phases cater to getting your product out in the market (in this case a new single or album release), the latter caters to the longevity of your marketing efforts ensuring the relevance of your product does not faze out. 

Here are five common marketing strategies implemented by labels to promote an artist’s comeback:

Create a buzzworthy moment

Artist: BTS

When the group isn’t creating history or breaking records, pop titans BTS are oiling their gears to mobilize their next marketing maverick. In a classic K-pop setting, most groups (including BTS) usually release either teaser photos or videos hinting towards their upcoming release. These assets give fans an aesthetic and sonic sense of the unreleased track, brimming excitement and intrigue simultaneously. 

In a strategic move to announce BTS’ Summer 2021 comeback, the septet launched an animation-driven live stream on YouTube. With nothing but a timer set to 60 minutes, sounds from a busy kitchen and a cube of butter melting with every second passing by, the live stream caught fans by surprise, immediately launching a discourse online over what the stream could entail.

While many placed their bets on a collaborative project with the fast-food chain McDonald’s, a few had decoded the message already—it was indeed a live stream building up to the announcement of the group’s second, all-English single “Butter.” 

Maintaining the audience’s attention for the length of a live stream is tough, let alone one with a 60-minute timer and no strong audio-visual connection. But keeping the BTS ARMY’s digital dominance in mind, this is the only group that has the power to launch an audacious marketing move of this scale.

The innovational pre-launch effort resulted in 800,000 people tuning in to watch the video—which now boasts a view count of over 18 million. Twitter soon caught the bug with the worldwide trends dominated by terms related to the live stream and BTS, one of them being ‘What’s melting’—a term that became one of the leading promotional hashtags for the campaign.

Focus on hyper-localized content

Artists: Stray Kids and NCT 127

Making a thunderous comeback with their second full-length album No Easy, South Korean powerhouse Stray Kids have been making waves with their uniquely crafted sound. 

Reflecting on the group’s knack for all things witty, Stray Kids announced their comeback through a side-splitting cinematic trailer. The group extracted several references unique to their personalities, career and used them in the trailer.

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Upon its release, the trailer (which positions Stray Kids as a group of saviors on a mission to defeat the ‘Sound Monster’) set social media sites ablaze. Many fans were quick to spot the references and hidden jokes, sharing their observations on Twitter. Here, the hyper-localized content birthed various discourses with fans re-watching the trailer and sharing their learnings on social media. It created a strong sense of community, strengthening their relationship with the group. 

From Felix checking his pulse to Changbin creating a fuss when celestial-like music cued in as soon as the camera focuses on Hyunjin, the trailer was a gold mine for fans. It was almost as if the group sent their fans on an Easter egg hunt, and in return, they took over social media, increasing the chatter around the hidden clues in the trailer and, of course, their upcoming album release.

Similarly, NCT 127 created a buzz around their third LP Sticker through the release of a sitcom-inspired video titled NCIT House. NCT arguably has an indigenous content strategy, especially on YouTube, where the group periodically uploads videos under categories ranging from variety, sitcoms, news, music and more. In the case of NCIT House, the group unlocked a Wonderwall for NCTzens (fans of the group), loaded with canon plot lines.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRlXovH9Avc

From Taeyong’s (NCT’s leader) love for all things dried sweet potato, Jungwoo constantly snacking to Mark’s Spider-Man mystery, NCT House succeeded at building intrigue and anticipation around the album without giving away too much. Jaehyun, Johnny and Mark’s skit, in particular, was the highlight of the episode with the entire segment improvised on the spot. 

Give the Audience the Steering Wheel

Artist: Moon Byul of MAMAMOO

One of the factors that makes K-pop compelling is the meticulous roll-out plans that we see in action before the release of an EP or LP. For long-term fans of the genre, comeback schedules aren’t unheard of. In fact, the marketing strategy is vital to give fans a sense of what the weeks (or in many cases a month) before the comeback will look like, stirring in just the right amount of anticipation.

Announcing the schedule ahead of any new releases also allows online communities to strategize and mobilize themselves, preparing for the comeback. Promotional trailers along with ‘comeback goals’ (quantifiable streaming and view counts) are circulated with accounts also extensively educating each other on streaming hygiene. 

A classic comeback schedules consist of intriguing trailers, concept photos amongst other promotional materials that help populate online chatter around the release. The best way to create intrigue around any release is by creating a carefully curated trail of treats—a marketing strategy the K-pop industry continues to champion. 

In MAMAMOO;s Moon Byul’s case, the rapper, singer and songwriter divided her efforts into two sections: Pre-release phase (which marketed her pre-release singles “G999” and “Shutdown”), and the final phase which focused on promoting her EP 6equence. While the pre-release stage oscillated between single covers and concept photos, the latter saw the artist utilize an array of assets to build anticipation.

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From the visual teaser, highlight medley (snippets of tracks stitched together) to teaser and mood samplers, the roll-out plan for 6equence was indeed a marketing treat. Amongst all the marketing assets curated, the mood samplers took the crown. The impactful 2-second clips set the precedent for tracks on the EP, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the sonic transcripts each clip possessed. 

Focus on Community Engagement

Artist: BTS

Organized by fan accounts, streaming parties are digital events that focus on boosting an artist’s streams and are a staple of fandom culture. Primarily held on leading streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, streaming parties help elevate the artist’s position on charts, while simultaneously increasing its potential to reach new listeners.

Over the years, streaming parties have proven to be an influential strategy to bridge the gap between an artist and their goals. Spearheaded by fans alone, crunching astronomical stream counts around a specific release also leaves room for earned media opportunities. With little or no PR-push, breaking streaming records counts as an interesting story angle, allowing press counts around a single or album release to double. 

Assessing the benefits of streaming parties, HYBE Corp (BTS’ label) and Columbia Records seized the opportunity that lies within streaming parties by dedicating seven days to exclusive “Butter” global streaming parties. 

JinJinara ∞ - Nati (REST)'s tweet - "[STREAM PARTY] Aquí los horarios para  el stream party organizado por HYBE y Columbia. Es importante q entren al  link a la hora exacta ya
Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Music/HYBE Corp.

With a microsite in place, the global streaming party required fans to connect to their preferred streaming destination (Spotify or Apple Music). Once linked, thousands of fans would cruise through a curated playlist of popular BTS title tracks, with “Butter” being the recurring track. 

Taking community engagement ( the ethos of K-pop marketing) a notch higher, the website also allowed real-time communication between fans, creating a holistic fandom experience, especially during a time when most were cooped in their homes due to the pandemic restrictions. 

Create an Unforgettable Unboxing Experience

Artist: DPR Ian 

While physical album sales are a pain point for many artists, South Korean artists seem to have an upper hand in this category. The primary argument continues to be the relevance of physical albums—why invest in albums when the tracks are available for free on streaming websites?

While this seems to be a logical argument, physical albums go beyond their auditory purpose. For many, albums are a collectible goldmine but for K-pop fans, albums are an experience. 

Loaded with mini Easter eggs, a standard K-pop album comes with stickers, photo cards, photo albums, posters and more. Offering more than just the audio disc, the addition of collectible merchandise creates a unique unboxing experience, which to a large extent can help boost physical album sales.

Last year, singer-songwriter and producer DPR Ian seem to have hit the bull’s eye in the sphere of packaging. DPR Ian’s album Mood Swings In This Order (MITO) comes with a heat-sensitive film layered on top. Fans can either run a flame over the cover to reveal the white-hued album cover or run a damp cloth over it to retain its intense black cover. Unlike standard K-pop albums, DPR Ian’s may not be loaded with photo cards, but the creative inputs that went into the album promise an equally enthralling unboxing experience.

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